Dems unleashed last-minute lobbying to change Lifeline deal

Congressional Democrats heavily lobbied a Federal Communications Commission member in the hours before a vote Thursday, helping to prevent a firm budget cap on a new program offering subsidies for Internet service to low-income Americans.

The last-minute lobbying of Mignon Clyburn left Republicans on the FCC crying foul.

{mosads}They argued that Clyburn broke her word on a deal because of pressure from Congressional Democrats and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“Was it just sort of a serendipitous, organic revelation? Of course not. Everyone in Washington has been here long enough to know what happened,” Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said. 

To bring Republicans on board, Clyburn came to a late-night agreement to impose a firm $2 billion budget cap for the Lifeline program, which already provides subsidies for low income Americans to get phone service.

But in the hours before the vote, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) personally told Clyburn the deal could hurt his constituents. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and eight other members sent a letter to the FCC echoing his concerns.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had her staff reach out to Clyburn’s office for information. Staff for Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) did the same. 

A half a dozen other offices reached out to explicitly express concern to Clyburn about imposing the $2 billion cap on spending. Similar calls came from Democratic staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

In all the outreach, only Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) “encouraged the commissioner to reach a compromise.”

Clyburn eventually reversed course, reverting back the original proposal that Wheeler unveiled earlier last month. That includes a more malleable $2.25 billion budget that is adjusted to inflation. The FCC wound up passing the proposal on a 3-2 party-line vote.

“I looked at that in total and said, on my own, when I woke up this morning, and speaking with the advisors whom are in my office, is this the best path forward?” Clyburn said. “And I concluded under the current construct that it was not.”

The backroom maneuvering became clear on Thursday as the vote was delayed.

With the vote scheduled for 10:30 a.m., Clyburn’s office at 9:49 a.m. announced on an internal FCC communications chain that the commissioner supported the deal with Republicans.

Twenty-two minutes later, the FCC meeting was officially delayed. A series of other delays pushed the meeting back more than three hours as negotiations among commissioners and phone calls with Congress went forward.

“I was told there was significant pushback from everybody on Capitol Hill, that there was too much pushback, that there had been a lot of heat taken because of this compromise,” Pai said. 

The unexpected turns Thursday left a sour taste in the mouth of both Republican commissioners, who have consistently complained about being marginalized at the agency. 

Clearly wound up, Pai claimed the pressure originated in Wheeler’s office, which he says he overheard first-hand. It then leaked to Capitol Hill, where the pressure grew. 

Clyburn, the daughter of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), said the chairman consistently told her that he would follow her lead, adding that Wheeler “did not pressure me.” Wheeler gave a one-word response to charges that he bullied his fellow commissioner: “Balderdash.”

GOP Commissioner Michael O’Rielly summed up his frustrations when asked how Thursday’s events will affect his relationship his fellow commissioners going forward. 

“Never count on a Dem to hold their vote,” he said, echoing a phrase he picked up when working on Capitol Hill. 


Tags Ajit Pai Anna Eshoo Claire McCaskill Cory Booker FCC Federal Communications Commission G.K. Butterfield James Clyburn Lifeline Michael O'Rielly Mignon Clyburn Nancy Pelosi Tom Wheeler

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